BANGKOK - Thailand’s military junta has unveiled an interim constitution that allows the army to retain sweeping powers. And the army chief, who currently has total executive and legislative oversight, could become the kingdom’s next prime minister.
Thailand’s temporary charter is to legitimize the May 22 coup and will effectively grant the junta supreme power over the country’s political and judicial arenas.
The military, which took power in a coup two months ago, is to handpick a 220-member legislature (replacing the House of Representatives and the Senate) that will later select a prime minister and Cabinet. Anyone who has held a political position in a current party will be excluded from the new group of lawmakers.
The members of the reconstituted legislative body must be at least 40 years of age and must not have been previously removed from a government post for “corruption, fraud or misconduct.”
An economic advisor to the military government, former commerce minister Narongchai Akransanee, says this will likely lead to elections in October of next year.
“The time line is like this now we have the interim constitution: names of members of the NLA, the national legislative assembly, would be announced most likely within two weeks and the government would be formed after that… And as General Prayuth said the government with military participation would be in place definitely in September,” said Narongchai Akransanee.
On Tuesday, Thailand’s revered 86-year-old King formally endorsed the interim charter in a ceremony with General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army’s chief. The ceremony, which took place in the coastal city Hua Hin, provides additional royal legitimacy to the coup by endorsing the new laws drawn up by the military.
In the coming months, the junta’s interim legislature is expected to choose a committee that will draw up a new constitution, which will then be submitted to the new reform committee for approval.
In the meantime, there is strong speculation General Prayuth will be selected as prime minister.
A deputy junta leader and a legal advisor to the military government are not ruling that out, saying the choice will be up to the provisional parliament.
The junta’s reform plan largely meets the demands of the protesters in Bangkok who occupied parts of the capital for months in a bid to push then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power. Protest leaders had called for an appointed committee to rule the country and implement far-reaching political reforms, before holding new elections.
Criticism of the new, interim constitution in Thailand is understandably muted, since the military has authority to summon anyone making comments deemed to be political or that could cause unrest.
The domestic media is operating under the harshest censorship seen here in decades.
A member of Thai Students for Democracy, speaking to VOA by Skype, says his underground group will not surrender to the junta’s anti-democratic decrees.
Identifying himself as “Rick Lee,” the university student in Bangkok characterizes the new charter as being imposed by a “system of tyrants.”
“The latest military junta is still maintaining the value of constitutional and freedom. But right now our value of constitution's check-and-balances, freedoms and liberty has gone. This is so ridiculous for them to do it like this because it means we're back to the situation like in Burma with the military rule. This is a huge step back for democratic development in this country,” he said.
Others expressing opposition - mostly through anonymous comments posted Wednesday on social media - lamented what they called a blow for democracy. The charter is also seen as a move by the junta to ensure political power will securely be in the hands of the conservative and royalist elite.
The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, contends the interim charter “will help solve the crisis and return the situation to normal, restore security, unity and solve economic problems.”
And the reform council will draft “political rules to prevent and suppress corruption and investigate abuses of power by the state before handing the mission to new representatives and the government.”
Since the end of absolute monarchial rule in 1932 Thailand has experienced frequent overthrows of civilian governments by the military. The generals or judicial action have deposed three governments since 2006.
Thaksin Shinawatra influence
The last five national elections in Thailand have been won by parties supported by billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup.
Junta officials say they want to ensure Thai politics are permanently freed from the influence of Thaksin. He was convicted in 2008 by a military-appointed panel of corruption and faces imprisonment should he return to Thailand from self-imposed exile.
His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was forced out as prime minister this year following six months of rallies in Bangkok.
After Yingluck’s removal General Prayuth declared martial law and then seized all power himself.
Since the bloodless putsch hundreds of people have been summoned for questioning and temporary detention. Most of those targeted are considered allies of the Shinawatra clan or critics of the military or Thailand’s harsh lese majeste laws.
General Prayuth has justified carrying out the coup as a necessary move amid a dangerous extended period of political stalemate and that the military will now improve Thailand’s democratic model and “return happiness to the people.”